Photo by David Greedy, Getty Images
The song, when she hears the strains of it, catching her unaware at any time, taps on her nightmare. It sings to her again, I’m forever yours …faith-fully. That song that she had to plug into the ears of a dying soldier, a song he could have been humming, casually, in his lonely outpost on duty.
Tiffany Tagudin had to keep him alive. Blood was all over her from his gunshot wounds. While the song played like a lullaby she had to stab the soldier’s throat with the tip of a ballpoint pen slightly melted with the fire of a cigarette lighter. She plunged it like a dagger into his throat to keep him from choking in his own blood. She didn’t know what she was doing. She was following orders from an American doctor. They were in a jungle. There was an ambush. She survived. Three years later, she could still hear that song, crooning, faith-fully…
This is it. We might die today. We were trapped. There were more rebels coming from behind. I heard Lt. Col. Tiny screaming, “Protect them!”–meaning us–”protect them from the Abu Sayyaf!”
Tiffany will tell you what happened in Basilan when the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) opened fire on an army convoy. She was there on a development project for the president’s office on the peace process. Lieutenant Colonel Tiny had asked her to join his men on a detour to another village. He should have known better the risks; he’d made a wrong call. Here on this island, danger comes with its history. It can sneak up on you at any time. In recent years, there was Tipo-Tipo in 2007, 14 Marines killed, 11 of them beheaded; Al-Barka in 2011, 19 Special Forces killed. Tiffany was leaving Al-Barka when the rebels attacked. Nine out of 50 in the convoy survived, she among them, but it was not talked about unlike the others that made front-page headlines. This one, the nightmare that preys on Tiffany, was a news blackout. It happened in May 2013 and for every year that passed since then she would consider it her birthday: for making it alive.
May 6, 2013. The longest day of my life, my destination not just any other conflict area. Flew down to Mindanao, to an island south of Zamboanga City, famous for kidnappings, beheadings, crossfire. An island called Basilan. It was Monday. My itinerary was packed. Three soldiers greeted us when we—me and a colleague—got off the plane. From there we went to the port for a slow, two-hour ferry ride to Isabela City, Basilan’s capital. The waves were not cooperating but I tried to get some sleep.
It seemed the soldiers were taking so long. I felt a problem brewing but I just shrugged it off. Then we were escorted to our vehicle, taking us to our first stop, Barangay Ungkaya Pukan, where the 18th Infantry Battalion was led by Army Commander, Lt. Col. Cristobal Juan Paolo Perez. His friends called him Tiny and I never asked him why. He used to work for the same office as I did and he was my main contact for this trip. He welcomed us warmly and offered us coffee. We were going to Al-Barka. It was our idea to pick this town for a peace campaign, to talk to the community and feed the children, and possibly build a schoolroom. We’d been discussing this for months and we were both excited.
After coffee, Lt. Col. Tiny introduced me to a man who would be an important figure in my story, Major Alin Kannung, a former commander of the Moro National Liberation Front who had integrated into the Army and was now working with Lt. Col. Tiny. His guerrilla name was Commander Blossom.
He was a tall, slender man in his forties. Lt. Col. Tiny described him as a man of principle. He said they used to be enemies burning each other’s houses and now they were very good friends fighting side-by-side in Basilan. I thought it was an impressive story. Lt. Col. Tiny informed us that Major Kannung would be joining our convoy to Al-Barka. I was quick to ask about the security of the place and they assured me that since the 2007 beheadings, it was safe and the community was nothing but cooperative.
It was a good start, I thought, although the ride was pretty long. We had to cross a river to get to that part of the island, and then we had to take a motorcycle to get to that part of town. It was a little bit exhausting but the scenery was stunning. We went straight to work as soon as we got there. We had lunch at the house of the barangay captain. We had rice and fresh seafood. I had plenty of time before our 7 pm flight out of Zamboanga. Upon heading back to the port, Lt. Col. Tiny asked me if I’d be willing to take a detour. He wanted to show me a USAID project they were doing, a joint military and rebel project. That’s a good story, I thought.
Bohe Piyang in Al-Barka was not a familiar site and it seemed quite out of the way. I fell into a nap and woke up to laughter in the car. They were laughing at the army tank in front of us unable to get through a puddle of mud. Major Kannung was seated beside me. He asked me to hold on to his bag as he left the car to check on the problem ahead. I was about to nap again when my colleague asked to borrow my perfume. What for? There were American soldiers around the vicinity. I remembered laughing at the silliness of it. I got out of the car and Lt. Col. Tiny introduced me to the American soldiers who were there to supervise the activity. Then, in just a few seconds, we heard gunfire. I saw someone drop, and then another. I heard someone shouting “Dapa!!! Dapa!!!” and I was shoved to the ground. I felt a staggering pain at the back of my neck. We crawled our way back to the car.
In the car, I heard Lt. Col. Tiny’s voice on the radio, yelling at our driver to keep us alive no matter what. The driver’s name was Alfred. Did he have a gun with him? Alfred said over the radio, “I have a .45 with two bullets left.” My colleague and I both looked at each other in fear: This is it. We might die today. We were trapped. There were more rebels coming from behind. Again I heard Lt. Col. Tiny on the radio screaming, “Protect them”—meaning us—“protect them from the Abu Sayyaf!”
I’ve been around armed men before. I have worked with the military and have spoken to rebel groups, but this one, this one was different. Alfred gave us a determined look, telling us that if we were to get out of here we would have to hide in the mayor’s house. My colleague started panicking. I needed to stay calm. It took us about an hour to find the mayor’s house. We could hear the gunshots coming closer. All I could do was hold on to my colleague, and we were going to be okay. We’ll be fine. If it’s time, it’s time. Taas-noo.
There was no signal on my cell phone and the battery was going low. A truck suddenly came to park near us. There was silence. I could hear Alfred and the mayor talking about someone. I got curious so I went towards them to find out what was happening. Inside the military truck was the lifeless body of Major Kannung. Just a few hours ago he was with us. Then he was dead. I still had his bag. I held it tightly feeling my stomach turn upside down. Alfred turned me away, instructing me to wait at the back. I remember the sight of another dead soldier being carried in. How many had we lost that day?
So I told her. “We got ambushed,” I said, and my phone went dead.
After an hour or so, the mayor came to tell us that we couldn’t stay there any longer. It was getting dangerous and the gun fighting was drawing near. Alfred said it was time to go. We were going to a safe house where we could get help. I said, “Okay, but we are not leaving Lt. Col. Tiny.” I lost Major Kannung that day, and I didn’t even know him. I didn’t want more men dying. Alfred told me we couldn’t stay. Lt. Col. Tiny had to stay and fight. I had no choice then. We left the mayor’s house for safety elsewhere. And then we were at a safe house standing by a cliff. I could see the beautiful sea and feel the cold wind from the east. It felt like it was embracing us away from our fears. I did not cry until then.
Having the luck of getting a feeble signal on my phone, I called the office in Manila. “Hey Tiff, how’s Basilan?”
In our line of work, going to the most dangerous places is one of the most fulfilling parts of the job. I was in Basilan and I was given the opportunity to make a difference in development work. It was supposed to be a privilege to be down south.
“Hey, Tiff. Are you okay? How’s Basilan?” my colleague at the other end of the line repeated.
I felt my body shaking. I felt exhaustion and pain. I asked her if she could move our flight, because well, it doesn’t look like we might be able to make it. What happened, she asked. I couldn’t answer. She said my voice sounded funny. So I told her. “We got ambushed,” I said, and my phone went dead.
A tricycle passes a US military convoy in Isabela City in Basilan. Around a thousand US soldiers were in the Southern Philippines in April 2002 for a training exercise with the AFP, especially designed to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf. Photo by David Greedy, Getty Images.
Wounded soldiers were being rushed into a tent. There were two American soldiers helping them out. The other American soldiers we had seen earlier had left the scene of the fighting, they had to withdraw, they had to stay out of our internal fighting. The Americans in the tent were doctors, one of them patching up our soldiers who were shot, and the other was holding an MP3 player that was crooning “Faithfully.” I know this song, I know the band that sings it: Journey. But at first I couldn’t understand what was happening. It was like a scene from a movie, doing whatever they could to save a soldier’s life.
It isn’t just the song that reminds her of that time. It seems as if her entire senses could assault her too. There was the strange fragrance of certain food that made her nauseous, dishes with traces of meat blood. Coppery, she said to me. Or the stench of public markets when the memory of it gets really bad. Sometimes she’d also smell it in the coins when she opens her wallet. It gets worse on New Year’s Eve, the burst of fireworks shaking her being, the rat-tat-tat of machine guns of men wearing fatigues, both sides of the fighting; but she could tell them apart and one of the soldiers had shielded her, the gun battle coming too close. She dreads the celebration of a new year, she locks herself up in a room to quiet down the noise of Basilan. She remembers leaving the island on board a rescue chopper, watching the sun descending on the water, the ethereal panorama from a hill where she had been in a makeshift hut trying to keep the wounded soldiers tuned in to, I am yours, faithfully, before their last breath.
The American doctors asked me to help. I knelt beside the dying soldier, pushing my hands on his wound. It was to put pressure so that blood would not flow out as fast. I’d never done such a thing in my life. I knew a thing or two about first aid but I never thought it would come to this in real life. I had no idea what I was doing.
At that moment, while I was putting pressure on the soldier’s wound, I realized the purpose of the song. Dying was not like dying in the movies. It’s not quiet and it’s not peaceful. It’s chaotic. Blood was coming out from their mouth and the soldier was trying to gasp for air. There was a lot of panic and fear. I could see their eyes rolling, their hands trying to feel or touch the ground. My job was to talk to them and tell them it’s going be okay, that they’re heroes for our country, and that they’re going to go home to their families. That was when I realized, the song was not there just because they needed music: the song was there so that they could calm down. So that when they die, they can die peacefully.
I saw one soldier after another, leaving this world to the last song in their ears. One of them even asked me, in his last breath, if I was okay. I can’t describe how I felt then, of a dying man thoughtful about me. Trust me when I say that everything I hold dear in this world, every dream, every aspiration, was meaningless. Everything that I thought important was reduced to nothing. Only life and life alone was important at the end of the day. Being alive was what mattered. Living was what made life matter.
There was a lot of chaos and a lot of fear that day, but there were also signs of hope. I found it in Alfred, who stayed with me no matter what happened, who lifted me from danger and into safe ground. Rescue had come and we were airlifted back to Zamboanga. It was my first time on a helicopter. The wounded were put at the back, my colleague and I sat near the pilot. I asked Alfred to be with us. He said he couldn’t. I pleaded. He said he had to stay and fight along with the others. His job of having kept us safe was done. We were safe and that was all that mattered.
I thought about the ones Sgt. Akmad Usman left behind. I know what it’s like to lose a father. I know what it’s like to lose a husband because I saw how my mother cried.
As the chopper flew up, I had my last look of Basilan. It was such a beautiful sight, the pristine waters, and the vast green forest. It’s hard to think that in that beauty was also violence. I left something of me on that island, and I will never be able to get that part of me back again. It took away something that cannot be replaced. We were trained to go to places like this, but we were never trained how to go back.
We landed at the base of the Western Mindanao Headquarters. We had to stay in the hospital and spend the night in the camp. That was the safest place for us. We could not sleep that night, me and my colleague. We just stared at each other in silence until fatigue got the better of us. We didn’t know what else to do. We just stayed there until it was time to go, to fly back to Manila.
When she made it back home in Manila, she cut her hair short, a boyish short. She went on AWOL, fleeing to Boracay, wandering about anonymously, her kind of place.
She smokes a cigarette, Marlboro menthol, unburdening her story of what happened. I light one too. I listen to her tell me her story from the beginning, from the time she woke up on that fateful Monday morning to get on a flight to Zamboanga. She narrates the day as calmly as she blows her cigarette smoke into the humid air, and when she takes a break, I let her deal with her thoughts quietly. Once she trembles, her eyes refusing to divulge the pain of her memory, holding back as I try to comfort her.
In the summer heat, she twists her hair, longer now, flowing down to her breasts, up to a chignon. She had her hair just like that when I first met her at a Christmas party, and later she said, yes, she would let me know when she was ready to talk about it.
When she ends her story in silence, we sit over tea on the balcony of her high-rise condominium where the evening air is cooler, and in brief moments watch the cadence of a scene below, of passengers getting on buses heading for the provinces for the holiday.
It’s been more than three years since that day. Everything seems so different to me now. The things I used to enjoy don’t seem that interesting anymore. My morning coffee doesn’t taste the same, my favorite books become boring.
I stopped laughing at jokes. Nothing felt the same. Nothing was making me happy. It was hard to find meaning in anything that I did. I had to find meaning as to why I survived. I wanted to forgive myself for surviving.
After the struggle for help, I found myself finally opening up to people around me. I decided to travel and meet different people. I told my story to strangers and felt liberated. I decided to learn how to cook, to do the plumbing, to learn how to light a fire like a girl scout. I went to support groups and met people who went through similar circumstances. Little by little, I was finding the courage to live again.
On June 20, 2016, which was Father’s Day, Lt. Col. Tiny was gunned down outside his home in Zamboanga City. He was shot several times. A friend texted me the devastating news. I didn’t know how to react. He was, by all means, one of the most important men in my life. He was the reason why I was there and why I also remain alive to this day. And I wasn’t even able to thank him for that. I went to his wake a few days later, my hands trembling and my eyes filled with tears. Saying my farewell, I remembered every single moment of that day in Basilan with such clarity. He was a hero too to his country and a savior too to many people he had worked with. There at his wake, I found peace and for the first time reclaimed myself from the pain that Basilan brought to me. I looked at his wooden casket and expressed, finally, my gratitude: a silent thank you.
This is my second life. In Basilan and elsewhere in Sulu and Mindanao people die every day. Families are displaced, women are raped, tourists are taken hostage, Muslim children are forced to take up arms, and our soldiers die for our country. Have I moved on? Probably not yet. But I am ready to tell my story. I am ready to face the world and go back to the work that I was so passionate about. A part of me was left on that island, and I know I will never be the same again. I have accepted that. Lt. Col. Tiny’s death reminded me that I will have to do my best in my inconsequential life. I’m still trying.
In Basilan, a mere half hour ride on a fast craft from Zamboanga City, there was an ambush yet again in early April this year. Eighteen Army soldiers killed in Tipo-Tipo, honored as “The Fallen”—the term carried over from the 44 police commandos killed in a bungled police operation in Maguindanao province that turned into a national tragedy in January 2015. One of the fallen from the recent Basilan clash against the ASG was a Muslim soldier, a sergeant whose name Amina Aban recognized. She was getting ready to ride on a shuttle van on her way to Cotabato City for a workshop when that name—Sergeant Usman—and his mug shot popped up on the Facebook feed on her cell phone. She scrolled the screen of her phone again to see if she had gotten it right. She turned numb.
Amina in front of the Bangsamoro Development Agency where she was community organizer.
I was stunned and caught myself in tears. I saw a photograph with the face of the man who killed my father. He was among the men in the Basilan encounter. He was one of the 18 Fallen Soldiers that got into an encounter with the ASG.
Sixteen years after my father died in that encounter between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the military (44th Infantry Batallion), justice was finally served last April 9, 2016. But was it really justice?
I thought about the ones Sgt. Akmad Usman left behind. His wife and children, and the rest of his family. They are grieving now like we grieved then. I know what it’s like to lose a father. I know what it’s like to lose a husband, because I saw how my mother cried. Until now I see how difficult it is for her, working to support all of us. I am more than familiar with the taste of salt because that is what we used to have with rice, when it was all that my mother could afford to provide us. She became the family’s breadwinner. We may not have the same standard of living with the ones Sir Usman left behind but I am sure in my heart their loss is as great as ours.
Because of these recollections rushing back to me, I didn’t notice that it was already four o’clock in the afternoon. I had to rush. I slid the phone back into my bag and almost fell trying to catch a motorcycle.
“Kuya, sa IBT po,” I told the driver. I didn’t even ask how much the fare was going there. It didn’t even occur to me if I could make it to the last trip. Then I realized it was hopeless. I’ll never make it to Cotabato. I’ll just wait for the 1 am trip. With my backpack, cell phone bag, and shoulders that have given up, I rode a tricycle back to the boarding house.
I went straight to the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea. A small consolation and stress reliever. I sat beside the small table, legs stretched, my back resting on the wall.
Command Responsibility: In September 2000, then preseident Estrada (here with General Angelo Reyes) arrived at the Edwin Andrews Airbase near Zamboanga to attend a command conference for a briefing on the military operation in Jolo against the Abu Sayyaf. Photo by Luis Liwanang, Getty Images
The years had gone by, there had been a war. The Muslim soldier who died in Basilan was the same Muslim soldier who killed her father, Kumander Aguila of the MILF. She counted the years it took the wheel of justice to turn. Sixteen. It was in the All-Out War of 2000 when the Muslim sergeant killed her Muslim father in one of the many battles raging around the provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao. Her father had been the rebel leader in the hinterland of Zamboanga del Norte, the tip of the peninsula connecting to the mainland of Mindanao.
My thoughts return to the sound of the cannon, the explosions that fought with the sound of bad weather: thunder, lightning, wind, and the intermittent rain. It was the day I lost my father. The year 2000 was a year I will never forget. The year of the all-out war that left a stain in my being, changed the course of my life, created a new cycle for my future. That was the year I was sent to the Arabic Orphanage, which would raise me away from my siblings and my mother, with the hope that I would continue the good deeds my father had started. It was there that I grew up and became a young lady. It was where I studied Arabic until I was able to read the entire Quran. It was at the orphanage where I learned to humble myself even to reason, that anything could be resolved with diplomacy and understanding.
There I experienced being an outcast, not having people on my side. Hence, I had to contend with the consequences of other people’s choices and decisions. I became quiet and always sat in a corner. If my opinion was not sought I kept silent, focused only on my studies: Arabic in the morning, English in the afternoon, and in the evening memorizing the Quran for a test the next day. I would spend sleepless nights just memorizing. It was the only way I could continue to study English.
My English studies stopped when I entered the orphanage where we were barred from leaving the campus. That’s why when the orphanage’s president visited once, I gathered all my courage to talk to him, even if I knew it wasn’t done. I cried in front of him, pleaded to be allowed to continue my English studies if only until I graduate from senior year. I could study it in college, yes, but he didn’t need to know that. I pleaded until we came to an agreement: I could study English but only if I didn’t leave my Arabic studies. I was first year high school when I entered the orphanage, but the principal said I could go straight to fourth year.
I finished my Arabic and English studies in 2011. As a graduate, I disciplined myself using the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. I could practice teaching but chose not to. Instead, I applied at the Bangsamoro Development Agency (BDA) as a community organizer and was first assigned to my hometown, Sirawai, in the province of Zamboanga del Norte, in a far and hidden area modern technology has yet to reach. The roads were rugged, unpaved, and you could see naked plots of land where trees once stood. There, you could still see groups of people who manifest anger on their faces at the sight of a soldier. Where you could see the divide between Muslims and Christians. The Muslims are located on the left, and the Christians on the right.
Returning to my hometown as a community organizer, I was able to conquer many challenges, which I used to strengthen myself at my young age. I thought it would be easy, especially since I was familiar with the place. But it wasn’t easy at all. Each day was like a challenge I was to prepare myself for. In the early days, I cried many times and thought of giving up. I plodded on.
Amina sat in my writing class at the three-storey office of the BDA in the outskirts, overlooking scattered fields and hills afar. Because the Facebook feed was so fresh in her mind, she unleashed her story with the courage of someone in group therapy. She spoke as if it were yesterday, her words unspooling the thread of her personal loss, dabbing her eyes from time to time but never succumbing to drama. Her emotions simply took her back to Camp Salman, the isolated village where her father had taken up his insurrection. She was barely in her teens when he died. She had only seen him three times in the course of his underground life. She wanted to be a teacher. But she wound up being a community organizer for peace, turning her father’s village into one of cohabitation between Muslims and Christians. Revenge did not suit her.
In the three years I was a community organizer in Sirawai, through the help of the BDA and its allies, its longtime problems were given solutions. The water system project of Barangay San Vicente, the People’s Organization composed of Muslims and Christians whose source was my father’s old camp when he was still alive.
During the thick of the project’s implementation, I heard a lot of negative feedback, one of them being that I disgraced the memory of my father. Why would I get the water from that source? What if there’s an encounter? Where would his old comrades hide and take refuge? It was like leading the enemy to their whereabouts. I felt guilty. But I knew I had to continue doing what I thought was right.
This old man who used to be a comrade of my father told me of my father’s trips to and from camp, carrying his backpack loaded with sardines, clothes, salt and writing materials. He also carried 25 kilos of rice and RPG and his weapon.
We went to the water source. Crossed four rivers and climbed three tall mountains. In each climb, I couldn’t count the times when I would stop to rest my tired body on the ground. We were soaking in sweat, our shoes caked with mud. Until finally we reached the water source, right at the peak of a mountain where one could see the vastness of Sirawai, its seas surrounded by green mountains. On the way down from the peak, our companion, this old man who used to be a comrade of my father, told me of my father’s daily trips to and from camp, carrying his backpack loaded with cans of sardines, clothes, salt, and his writing materials. He only made it to third grade but my father loved to write and loved reading. He would also carry with him 25 kilos of rice and RPG (Rocket-Propelled Grenade) and his weapon. Compared to me who didn’t have to carry anything but is short of breath anyway. Nangliit ako sa sarili ko. This pushed me to do my job really well. Not as a community organizer but as a daughter imagining the trails my father went through. Coupled with determination and love for what I do, and the support and reconciliation of Muslims and Christians, I managed to solve what was once a problem of the municipality that had spanned decades: I enabled a water source to supply 34 barangays. What was once a camp of the MILF is now a source of development.
In Barangay Balubuan you can see the traces of a cruel past. The flat lands that grow no plant life, the chopped trunks of trees like human legs missing the rest of a body. They were chopped that way by soldiers following the leads of their crooked officials, only because these are lands owned by an MILF combatant. Land left to parch for years. Instead of serving as land for coconut trees, its only use now is a parking lot for carabaos.
The BDA helps not only in giving projects but also in reinstalling the community’s determination, and widening the constituency’s understanding.
This is what happened to the parched land in Barangay Balubuan: it is now an area of development. A People’s Organization was born. They were able to build the Solar Dryer and Warehouse in the abandoned lot, and the lot is now farmable again. Today, the organization has a steady source of income and livelihood through the agency and its farm machineries.
On Facebook, she typed a hasty comment below the picture of the Muslim sergeant who had killed her father: “Akmad Usman is a Muslim killed by a Muslim.” She deleted it after comments rushed in, not wanting to attract attention to her own family, their own quiet grief. As she asked in her essay, Is this Justice? Of a Muslim soldier who killed a Muslim rebel—her father—himself killed by a Muslim rebel of the ASG in Basilan, in this unending saga of the Muslims in the south.
To use the pain of the past is not to exact revenge but to right a wrong.
MILF armed forces take a position on the lookout for Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters in North Cotabato, April 2016, in Mindanao. Photo by Jes Aznar, Getty Images.
It is sacrifice and principles that strengthen us. We may pursue things in different ways but we are all working towards the same goal: to give justice to those who need it, and to fight for those who can’t. We can achieve anything through patience and self-control. This is my story based on the trail of footsteps my father left behind.
After the writing class I saw on my online feed that Amina had gone to get a massage at the Cotabato hotel where she was staying. Checked in at EM Manor, Cho’t Choi Thai Massage. Amused, I wrote on the comment line that I could have joined her. Oo nga, ma’am, sayang po, she quipped in her reply. In my private moment with her earlier, I asked her to remove her tendung veil, watching her fingers comb her long hair. She was prettier without the veil, I thought, but I couldn’t tell her that. Charot! she would have exclaimed and giggled in that very girlish way of hers after she had unburdened the story of her family. But she had been weeping silently over the fate of her father, suddenly recalling the man that he was, unlettered but principled; and the years that followed, the many years of fighting for Mindanao.
Amina taught me the Arabic word sabr, which in the Quran speaks of patience and endurance, moving forward under the will of Allah. I have seen much of this war since I was a girl growing up in Zamboanga City in the 70s—Basilan nearby, a place I had gone to for picnics with my family and later again to army camps talking to soldiers about the conflict, revisiting the white sand beaches, seeing the clear water in my mind when Tiffany was trying to describe to me the haunting beauty of it in the vortex of violence, the last paradise she had seen before her future upended.
The Mindanao war as they call it has been summoning my conscience through the decades, asking the question resounding of triteness over time: when will this be over? The answer may be in the eloquence of sabr, through which I have found the voices of these two young women.
This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of Rogue.